What Does It Mean to Decriminalize Psychedelics?
Written by: Kelly Martin
Published on: August 11, 2022
In 2021, several American cities moved to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics including psilocybin-containing mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine, and mescaline. (The state of Oregon, in addition, legalized psilocybin and decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs.) Other cities—and even whole states—have legislation in the works. It’s an indication that our collective consciousness around psychedelics is changing: We’re seeing communities start to strip away the stigma and misunderstandings that emerged in the 1960s and develop a fuller understanding of these substances’ true potential for healing.
The movement to decriminalize psychedelics is a decentralized one, but Decriminalize Nature cofounder and chair Carlos Plazola is certainly a key player. His work convinced the city council in Oakland, California, to decriminalize the use of all entheogenic plants. What’s important to note is that Plazola’s work—and the work of Decriminalize Nature chapters all over the country—isn’t just about making these drugs no longer illegal. It’s about reorienting communities toward compassion and healing.
A Q&A with Carlos Plazola
This is the best way to explain it: Say you really love to grow tomatoes. You can grow as many tomatoes as you want, pick them, and make as big of a dinner as you want with those tomatoes. There’s no government oversight over how many tomatoes you can grow, gather, or gift. That’s because tomatoes aren’t—and haven’t ever been—criminalized.
That’s the baseline goal of decriminalization: no criminal penalties whatsoever for your relationship with a substance. And it’s what we’re trying to achieve with entheogens. We’d like to see them decriminalized so humans can have the same level of relationship with them as they do with food.
A legalization framework mostly has to do with regulation. Let’s say I grew five hundred tomatoes and I want to sell them in some way—perhaps I’m going to sell you a tomato sauce I made or simply sell my tomatoes on the street. The moment I get into a sales relationship, I’m now regulated in a legalized framework.
Again, we’ll look at the same thing with entheogens: If I choose to sell entheogens—perhaps I create a tea and market it and sell it as a product or fabricate it commercially—that would fit into a legalization framework. Here’s where we can learn something from when we legalized cannabis: When cannabis was legalized, it was quickly co-opted by corporate entities. In California, most of the permits to sell cannabis did not go to community residents who had already been selling cannabis and going to jail and prison for it. They went to people who were new in cannabis and just wanted to exploit the value creation in cannabis.
What we’re trying to do with Decriminalize Nature is set up a framework where we can offer the opportunities for value creation to our local communities around the US so that people can not only grow, gather, gift, and have their own personal relationship with entheogens as they do with food but participate in the economy, too. We have an initiative called the Go Local Initiative, which is about building local economy around these things that grow from the ground.
The world’s been on a trend of consolidation of power, consolidation of wealth, and growing injustices and disparities. Decriminalize Nature counters that by saying healing should be accessible to everyone.
Look at Oakland, which has been a case study in decriminalization since June of 2019. There has been an explosion in the number of people who are growing, cultivating, and sharing these medicines with one another in our community. The cost to grow these medicines is low, and it’s easy to teach people how to grow them, use them, and heal with them. And then we can hold one another in ceremony. That’s beautiful. That was the intention.
When you look at the models being studied by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, they’re treatment sessions with a talk therapy model and rigorous protocols that are costly to maintain. It could cost from $1,000 to $10,000 to sit in treatment.
Not only is that an access issue in terms of price, but it’s also a cultural mismatch for many communities of color. Sitting in a room with somebody who’s asking about your problems is a contemporary Western model. Many cultures heal in community with family, friends, and other community members.
In this movement, we’re seeking to enable whatever modality of healing people want to engage in. So you can do therapy if you want to, or you can heal in community, or you can go on a journey in the privacy of your own bedroom. It’s about ensuring we each have sovereignty over our own consciousness.
The concept of harm reduction typically implies one group of people protecting another group of people from themselves. Our approach to harm reduction is to offer people options for healing themselves with entheogens, providing information and education, and enabling them to find their way to heal in community, if they choose, where they can be held by their peers and experienced practitioners.
If entheogens are their choice, it’s important that people are given the tools to retake power and control over their own healing process, understand the risks, and take the risks they’re comfortable with without some external authority telling them how they can and cannot do so.
We’ve already passed decriminalization legislation in a dozen cities in California, Michigan, Vermont, Oregon, and a couple of other states. The reason we’re having so much success is because there are very few complications with passing such legislation. It’s simply declaring these medicines no longer criminal. If it’s on Schedule I and it comes from nature, it should not be criminalized. That resonates with a lot of elected officials. We’ve had a lot of success.
The challenge that we’re facing now is from the corporate side, where there’s concern about the growth of a movement that would make these things free. We’re seeing pushback from some of the lobbying groups for corporations that see their future profits shrinking.
The primary lobbying group that consistently seeks to undermine our movement is New Approach PAC, a drug reform lobbying group in part funded by Scotts, the distributor of RoundUp, as well as Privateer Holdings, which is largely financed by Peter Thiel’s venture capital fund Founders Fund. Many millionaires and some billionaires with strong business ties to cannabis corporations have invested in New Approach PAC, including Facebook billionaire Sean Parker.
As a movement, we’ve never gotten support from some of the psychedelic players who have more of a corporate-minded, profiteering interest. In the last year, we’ve started seeing more active opposition from those people, including attempts to derail our movement. That’s par for the course. It’s a struggle between a fear-based profit motive and a love-based compassion and abundance motive. They don’t coexist well in this moment in time. But I hope soon they’re able to.
Last year, Decriminalize Nature withdrew support for California’s senate bill 519, authored by Senator Scott Wiener. Initially, SB 519 was going the way we wanted it to: decriminalization without limits. And then, suddenly and unnecessarily, the bill was revised to introduce personal possession limits.
What personal possession limits effectively do is limit our relationship with plant medicines and inhibit the emergence of local economy. Think farmers’ markets, microbreweries, small coffee shops—things that require that people are able to experiment with these products in order to build local economies. Instead, they create artificial scarcity and serve corporate interests. Possession limits also function to get people put in jail—or back in jail, if they’ve already been—simply for having more than a certain amount of medicine. We’re opposed to that.
Rather than hastily pass a problematic decriminalization bill just to pass it, we’d prefer to take the time to educate assembly members and senators on why it’s important to not place limits on natural entheogens. And what we’ve found is that when we can take the time to educate our elected officials, they almost unanimously support our mission in full.
We imagine a world where people are much more informed about these medicines and how to heal with them. People would grow their own medicines like they grow tomatoes in their gardens. If you buy your mushrooms, you know who’s growing them and who’s testing them and who’s making them into teas, and you can go talk to those people as you would talk to your local pub owner and ask them where they get their beer.
Then there’s what we see for healing: Except for in a few Indigenous communities that still use entheogens in ceremony, much of that knowledge has been lost. We have to relearn what our ancestors knew about how to work with these plants and fungi. Imagine that education happening based on the ways that each community learns and speaks, where ceremony becomes specific to the cultural expressions of that community. This healing work would become as accessible and abundant as any worship ceremony would be.
We’re an open-source, transparent, and decentralized movement. We have a very clear ethos that we encourage every chapter to adopt. But after that we support our chapters to do their own work locally. This is how we’ve been so successful. We have over 50 groups in the US that are actively organizing in their cities, and everything that any group creates is available to any other group. We’re not leading by trying to raise money.
If you want to get involved, you can visit the Decriminalize Nature website for news, volunteer information, and education events. You can also send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll help connect you to your local chapter, and if there’s not already a group in your city, we’ll help you get one set up.
Carlos Plazola is the cofounder and chair of Decriminalize Nature, a psychedelic education organization focused on decriminalizing natural entheogens at the local level. Previously Plazola served as chief of staff to the Oakland city council president as an advisor on economic development issues. He has a bachelor’s in anthropology and biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a master’s in environmental science from Yale.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.